6th Sunday of Easter Sermon – The Rev. Rebecca Goldberg

6th Sunday of Easter
May 10, 2015
Acts 10:44-48, Psalm 98, 1 John 5:1-6, John 15:9-17

Love Is Our Teacher

​For me it is an occasion of great rejoicing when the theme of the Gospel from the week before very nicely carries over into the narrative of the Scripture I have to preach on! In fact, this week’s sermon could be entitled, Life In the Vine, Part II ! In last week’s Gospel, Jesus described for us how we are to live in relationship with him– as branches connected to him in a life giving vine and connected to each other through him. We learn that we cannot thrive apart from our connection to him; in fact, without that connection, we will wither and die. In order to keep the branches healthy, sometimes they have to be pruned and we have to let go of what is not life-giving for ourselves and the community. Only then will we bear fruit. In today’s passage, we learn that love is both the gift that empowers us to minister to the world in Christ’s name, and the first fruit of life in the vine, the community. This love is sacrificial, abiding, and truth-seeking. It is something we can never do in our own strength, but only through the power of the Spirit living in us.
​By way of background, last week’s Scripture passage, as well as the portion for today, are part of what is known as Jesus’ Farewell Discourse to his disciples. In the Gospel of John, Jesus uses the time before his betrayal and death to instruct, challenge, comfort and strengthen his disciples in preparation for his leaving them and coming into his glory. In the earlier part of the Discourse, he tells them he is going away but that he has a place prepared for them. He encourages them to take heart during times of suffering and persecution, and promises an Advocate, the Holy Spirit, who will live in them and empower them to minister in Jesus’ name. He doesn’t claim to protect them from strife and struggle, pain, and death, but instead promises them something even more wonderful-his peace and eternal presence that nothing can take away. His strong, encouraging, yet tender words can be understood in the context of his impending death, and yet also apply to John’s community in the first century church, who was struggling with the conflict with the religious authorities, as well as factions within their own church. His teaching transcends time and speaks as clearly today as it did in the first century.
​So how does this passage apply to us today, here in the early 21st century? What is so unique about life as part of the Vine, the Body of Christ? First, I think that love is the first fruit of life in the vine. It is the outgrowth of living closely knit to Christ and to one another. We are commanded to abide in his love, and to love one another as he has loved us. The Christian life, you see, is not something that can be lived in isolation, but in communion and fellowship with others. In a sense, love is our teacher in the ways of Christ and the school is the community of faith, in the company of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Community is a great classroom because there, in relationship with others, we learn to love. We bump up against the messiness of family life, and each others’ rough edges, and sometimes there is conflict. In community we learn to let go of the need to fulfill all of our own desires, and to show empathy and compassion. In community, we learn to extend the love and hospitality of God to those outside of our comfortable little circle, and to grow and be changed in the process. In community, we learn to humbly allow God to prune our rough and tangled parts so that we may grow into health. In fact, life in community has a way of pruning us and keeping us humble! So love is the gift of God that comes from our connection to the vine, and it is also the fruit of life in the vine.
​What are some of the characteristics of this love? What gives Christian love such power? First, I think we can say that it is sacrificial. In today’s Gospel Jesus declares that “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” I am reminded of the young man in the Colorado theater shooting who threw himself over his girlfriend to protect her and was then killed by the gunman. There were the civil rights marchers killed in Selma, laying down their lives for the freedom and dignity of others, their brothers and sisters. There are countless soldiers who have risked their lives to save their buddies. There are the Maryknoll sisters who sought to bring dignity and hope to the poor in El Salvador, and were gunned down on a dark deserted road, And the list of the faithful goes on. But I would also submit that there is another form of sacrificial love that is every bit as powerful—the love of people who quietly give themselves for others in patience and compassion, joy, pain and grief, in their everyday lives and relationships. There is the family who tenderly takes care of aging parents, walking through the shadow lands of their decline and death, faithfully loving them to the very end. On this Mothers’ Day, I am reminded of so many mothers who offered their lives and hearts to love us, nurture us, challenge us and encourage us to be the people of God we were created to be. I think of the faithful people of this congregation, who after a long hard week of work, lovingly prepare our house of worship for services, work around the grounds, and offer food and fellowship to the community, week after week after week. Then these same people prepare food for the homeless and share their love with them. This too, is laying down one’s life for one’s friends, in compassion, humility, and gratitude, in a lifetime of self-giving service.
​Another mark of the love of Christ is that it is abiding. It doesn’t give up on other people when they are difficult to love, but keeps on extending itself. My clinical pastoral education supervisor called this the kind of love that is “willing to climb in the hole” with someone else. This is the kind of love that doesn’t need to change or fix, but is willing to be with people wherever they are as a companion on the journey. Are we able to love in this way? Can we let go of our need to “fix” others or solve their problems? Do we make love conditional on people’s behavior, or their willingness to change? Or can we climb right down in the hole with them, no matter how dirty or dark it is, because that is what God does for us? This kind of love is countercultural. It is lavish, outlandish, and wonderfully foolish. It makes no sense, yet makes the most sense of anything in the world. It has the power to bring hope and transformation.
​The love of God also seeks the truth. It doesn’t shy away from conflict, or confrontation. While loving can involve sacrifice for the good of another, it doesn’t mean being nice all the time and never thinking of our own needs. Love is meant to build mutual support and caring. And if we truly love the community, we have to be willing to compassionately confront if people are behaving in a way that is destructive to themselves or the community. This is not easy because we are called to confront in a way that tells the truth but is respectful of each person as a brother and sister in the Body of Christ.
​Finally, loving in this way is not something we can do in our own strength. We need the Holy Spirit living in us to empower us and help us. I know that on my own, my love is conditional, and it is easier for me to love others who think like me. All too often, I love others with an eye to “what is in it for me.” I can too easily give up on loving someone, even though mercifully God doesn’t ever give up on people, me included! Unless we are connected to the life- giving vine who is Jesus Christ, we cannot love the way he does. . As he heals and transforms us with his love, our hearts are changed and we will be able to love the way he does. He considers us not as servants, but as beloved friends, and we are called to extend that friendship in the Body of Christ and in the world.
​“No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. Are we willing to follow our Lord in this radical offering of sacrificial love? Can we quietly and patiently weave the beauty of the love of Christ in our day to day lives so that in us others may see the Divine pattern of grace and compassion? Let us pray for the strength each day to truly love others as he has loved us! Amen.

Second Sunday of Easter Sermon – The Rev. Rebecca Goldberg

2nd Sunday of Easter, April 12, 2015
Acts 4:32-35, Psalm 133
1 John 1:1- 2:2, John 20:19-31

The Rev. Rebecca Goldberg

Easter – From Doubt and Fear to Joy

Allelulia, Christ is Risen- the Lord is risen, indeed, Alleluia! This triumphant acclamation has rung in the Church over the centuries, from tiny congregations in remote rural areas to majestic cathedrals in our great cities- from chapels in country villages to urban storefront churches, by people of every culture and ethnicity and station in life. We join the unbroken chain of Christians across time who have proclaimed that this Jesus, who was crucified, died, and buried, is gloriously alive, is risen, and because he is risen, we, too have new hope, new life.
We continue to celebrate Easter these coming Sundays, because Easter is not just one day, but a season. Over the next 50 days we read and reflect on the Scripture accounts of Jesus’ resurrection appearances to his followers, and the new life, hope, and power for living in the Kingdom of God that he brings. During the Easter season we gather to tell the stories of transformation and hope that we encounter in our experience of the Risen One. We are healed, we are strengthened, by the presence of Jesus in our midst, and we are empowered to live lives of love, mercy, and justice in the world. For as a church- that is what we are called to do- to be bearers of the resurrection life in the Body of Christ and in the world- to seek to draw all people into the wide circle of God’s love.
Today’s Gospel is a rich account of transformation of the disciples and of their call to continue on with Jesus’ work of healing, restoring, and forgiving. A discouraged, frightened band of disciples become filled with hope and the power of the Spirit, ready to live as the newly born church, the body of Christ, and carry on his saving work. In their encounters with the Risen Christ, people began to sense that he and God were somehow one, that Jesus was the human face of God. And in this passage, we find that we, like Thomas, need to put our hands in the wounded side and hands of Christ, to worship in wonder and awe, and let him draw us out of our places of fear and doubt into lives of freedom and joy.
By way of background, the Gospel of John was written last, probably between 90 and 100 AD. Like the other 3 gospels, its story reflects some of what was going on in that particular Christian community at the time. At that time, there was division and strife between the Jewish Christians and Gentile Christans and the Jews in the synagogue who did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, Many of the Jewish Christians had been banished from the synagogue. So the section in the passage about being “locked in the house for fear of the Jews” could have referred to the situation this community found itself in. It is certainly not meant to be a condemnation of Jews now- but a reflection of the situation at the time.
When Jesus reveals himself to the disciples, he breathes on them and imparts the Holy Spirit, and commissions them to carry on his work. The theme of the church as the living body of Christ which is his hands and feet in the world is more developed in John’s Gospel than the earlier ones. Also, the writer of John’s gospel is very much concerned with Christology- or who Jesus is in relation to God. He understands Jesus to be equal with God, and present from the beginning of creation. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus is referred to as the Son of Man, or Son of God. In John he is the Word who was with God from the beginning, and in the words of Thomas, “my Lord and my God.” So the author of John’s gospel is drawing out some new strands of faith and tradition that were developing in the early church.
Something very powerful happened to those disciples who were locked away in fear on that first Easter day.. Mary Magdalene had told them that the Lord had risen, and she had seen him. Yet it seemed they just could not believe it, and they hunkered down in fear and hid from the authorities. Then Jesus came to them and said “Peace be with you, and showed him his wounds, the marks of his humanity, his suffering and death. And as if it wasn’t enough to be reunited with their Lord, to touch him, and hear his voice, he blesses them with the invocation of the Spirit and entrusts them with the work of building the beloved community of his followers, the Church!. What joy they must have known! He knows their weakness, their doubts, their denials and betrayals, and still calls them to minister in his name. They are called to teach others in the power of the Holy Spirit, and to proclaim the forgiveness of sins, to build up the life of the Body. And Jesus is standing in the midst of that room calling us, here today, telling us to be at peace, not to fear, to receive the Holy Spirit, and share with others the glorious good news of new life, of repentance, of walking with the Risen Christ in the way of freedom and joy.
When the disciples encountered the Risen Jesus, they did not experience him as some vague heavenly spirit, but a real, flesh and blood person, fully human, fully physically present, and somehow more himself than ever, glorified. They sensed they were in the very presence of God himself. With joy and awe, they are coming to get a glimpse of a great Mystery—that Jesus, who ate with them and taught with them, laughed and wept with them and walked along the shores of Galilee with them, who suffered and died, and then rose, was one with God, the Holy One. And this Jesus, alive forevermore, was calling them to share the good news of salvation, of new life in his name, with the world. This is the faith that has sustained the Church through the ages, and that is still our hope today.
Like Thomas, we, too, need to touch the mark of the nails and put our hands in the wound in the side. Like Thomas, we need to let go of our fears and doubt and let ourselves be embraced by the Risen One. Like Thomas, we need to fall at his feet and proclaim with wonder and joy, “My Lord and my God! We can believe with our minds that Jesus is the Holy One of God and that he is risen, but unless he is risen in our lives, unless his cross and passion are taken into our hearts, we cannot experience the joy of the resurrection, He has died and risen that each one of us will know new and glorious life. As the tomb could no longer contain him, so he longs to free us from whatever entombs us. What locked and confining rooms do we hide away in, afraid to dare to believe in the power of the love of God? Are we locked in a place of hopelessness, of despair? Are we trapped in the confining space of festering resentment, of unforgiveness, of mistrust? Are we entombed by addiction, or guilt, or anxiety?. Or maybe our tomb is a place of apathy, or boredom. I know that I lock myself in a room of fear and bolt the door tight, afraid to let others see my weaknesses, afraid if they knew what I was really like, they could not possibly love me. The good news, friends, is that we are not alone in those dark places. No lock or tomb can keep him out. He comes to us not in judgment but in compassion, with peace, loosing the bonds that imprison us and making us his own. He loves us, and as we are healed and made whole by his wounds, we are called to bring his healing and salvation to others.
And just as his wounds are now glorified, signs of healing and joy, so our own wounds and brokenness, part of our humanity, can be a source of joy for us. They remind us that we are dependent on God for wholeness, and that in our weakness the divine strength is revealed. Jesus has shared our flesh, so God and humanity are forever joined. Our human nature has been taken up with his and been restored, renewed, redeemed. The great good news of Easter is that Christ is risen, and with him death and darkness have been defeated, and all of creation has been restored to glorious, resurrection life.
So let us rejoice, and live and love in the light of the Resurrection. Christ is risen, the Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.